Mark Eitzel’s dictatorial control over American Music Club was one reason the group imploded a few years ago: as much as his able band mates contributed, he never let them forget whose vision they were to adhere to. But the lack of tension proved deadly on Eitzel’s 1996 solo album, 60 Watt Silver Lining; unchecked, his proclivity for schmaltz and moroseness grew suffocating. The self-pitying abandon of his lyrics has always been part of their charm, but Eitzel desperately needed familiar musicians to hedge him in. His superb new album, West (Warner Brothers), written and produced with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, is his first true joint effort–and his best work since AMC’s dense masterpiece Mercury. Buck, who wrote all the music, tends toward sunny, sometimes spritely folk rock; his muscular hooks and traditional structures force Eitzel out of some of his odder habits, like burying a chorus near the end of a song. Eitzel hasn’t retreated from the almost comic gloom of his lyrics; he’s still a loser looking for something, anything–a lover, happiness, a stiff drink–and banging his head against the wall for the duration of a quest that proves fruitless (except for the booze). But the band on West is more than flexible enough to set a variety of simpatico moods for the singer’s emotionally extroverted words; it includes Buck on guitar, drummer Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees), bassist Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5), and Skerik (Critters Buggin’), whose atmospheric vibraphone and rough-hewn saxophone contribute a languid but unsettling grace. Eitzel, whose singing has never been better, will perform solo–which could aggravate his taste for melodrama–but at least his material is way up to snuff these days. Jill Sobule and Paul K open. Friday, 10 PM, Lounge Ax, 2438 N. Lincoln. 773-525-6620. PETER MARGASAK

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Minette Lew.